The new land grab: Does California’s original environmental sin illuminate threats to Nevada’s future?

Congressional Republican supermajority looks to liquidate public lands, puts conservationists and hunters on defense

California’s Lake Berryessa, near Winters, is one of thousands of pristine pieces of BLM land that is open to the public across the United States.

California’s Lake Berryessa, near Winters, is one of thousands of pristine pieces of BLM land that is open to the public across the United States.

Photo courtesy of istock/shackleford-photography

This story was made possible by a grant from Tower Cafe.

Clad in jeans and a lumberjack’s flannel, biology professor Joe Medeiros combs through reams of documents about the Center for Sierra Nevada Studies in Rocklin. Outside, a storm thrashes trees and hammers diamonds on the pavement, symbolic of the changing weather in Washington, D.C.

Congressional Republicans changed House rules earlier this year to make it easier for states to seize control of federal lands, opening the door to the sell-off of protected wildlife habitats and sprawling natural monuments.

Days after the congressional move, Utah became embroiled in a political firefight when one of its elected officials introduced a bill calling for federal authorities to liquidate 3.3 million acres of public land. It’s a turn of events many conservationists think could never happen on the West Coast, but Medeiros knows all too well that, at least in California, it already has.

Medeiros, of Sierra Community College, oversees a major archive on the destruction of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. The pristine landscape lost its federal protection in 1923 so a reservoir could be built to fuel Bay Area expansion. The latest developments in Washington, D.C., have conservationists worried history might be about to repeat itself in dozens of locations across the West, especially in the wake of a collective amnesia about what happened to one of the most famous wild sanctuaries in the world.

“There is very little awareness that Hetch Hetchy was part of a national park,” Medeiros observed. “It was a raging fight at the time, with hundreds of editorials written from coast to coast. But now the awareness has just fallen away. … Our national parks are the great sacred places that we promised to protect. This was an atrocity.”

While a replay of Hetch Hetchy is unlikely in California, two federal land experts told SN&R the risk is high for Nevada’s hills sweeping off the eastern side of the Sierra.

The new push to transfer and sometimes privatize federal property started January 3, when congressional Republicans passed a resolution that could potentially compel the Department of the Interior to give its lands over to states without getting budgetary compensation.

The vote has been viewed by some analysts as Western-state Republicans trying to revive the so-called “Sagebrush Rebellion,” a movement in the 1970s to weaken federal control over vast expanses of terrain. By 1980, the Sagebrush Rebellion had a new figurehead in President Ronald Reagan, though it eventually tapered off when the great communicator appointed a moderate to run the Interior Department and the Supreme Court ruled against a Colorado rancher’s challenge to federal stewardship.

Following the House of Representatives’ January vote, Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah immediately introduced House Resolution 621 calling for the federal government to sell off several million acres of land across 10 states to “nonfederal entities.” By February 2, Chaffetz was reaching out to Utah’s largest newspaper to announce he’d changed his mind, after his office was reportedly flooded with angry messages, including from constituents in the hunting and fishing communities.

Nevertheless, nature enthusiasts and sportsmen alike are worried a legislative genie is out of the bottle, one that could surface anywhere in the 334 million acres of land under federal protection.

If employees for the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forestry Service or the national parks share those concerns, they can no longer say so, since President Donald Trump issued, in his second week in office, a gag order on their ability to communicate with the public.

One person who can talk is Carl Rountree. He recently retired from the BLM after 35 years of service that included acting as the assistant director of its Natural Conservation System. Rountree thinks that any public lands that haven’t already been designated by Congress as “wilderness areas” are the most likely spots to be targeted.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the federal government currently protects 28 percent of the land in the United States. By contrast, BLM reports note that only 3 percent of land in the Lower 48 enjoys the special wilderness designation. In other words, even if Republicans leave wilderness areas untouched, the vast majority of the public’s open space could be up for grabs.

“It’s not that this new rule change completely opens the door to state and private ownership, but it certainly addresses a stumbling block that was there before, and it makes the process less complicated,” Rountree said. “As a former BLMer, I’m pretty concerned.”

SN&R spoke with numerous environmental groups that believe a similar coup attempt in California is unlikely.

That’s not the case for Nevada.

The recent change in House rules was a boost for Republican Rep. Mark Amodei, of Nevada’s Second Congressional District.

Amodei introduced H.R. 1484 last year, calling for 9 million acres of land operated by the BLM and Forest Service to be transferred to his state in two phases. Critics say the language of the bill actually opens the door for Nevada to annex nearly all federal land in its borders during the second phase.

The bill would also allow Nevada to use any newly acquired lands for generating state revenue, specifically by leasing them to schools, colleges and hospitals or selling them to private interests.

Amodei has continued to push for his bill to get a hearing in Congress, and, unlike Chaffetz in Utah, he has strong political allies in Nevada. Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Dean Heller both have endorsed the deal, while Nevada Republicans in the legislature passed a resolution supporting it.

Shaaron Netherton, who spent 22 years working for the BLM before becoming the executive director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness, said it’s somewhat unclear which acres of public land her state’s Republicans want to control.

“It’s frustrating because there are no maps out there that they’ve released,” Netherton told SN&R. “There might be important wildlife lands, or lands that are being used for hunting, fishing and recreating—and maybe lands we don’t want to just sell to China.”

Jeremy Garncarz of the Wilderness Society has been monitoring the recent events in Nevada, where Amodei and Heller also introduced a bill to block the president of the United States from creating any new national monuments in their jurisdiction. Garncarz agrees that the political plans to take ownership of federal sanctuaries are disturbingly vague.

“We’re operating under the assumption that everything could be on the table,” Garncarz said.

One group officially supporting Amodei’s bill is the Nevada Lands Council. In a statement on the group’s website, NLC treasurer Sheldon Mudd argued the transferred lands will be better protected and maintained under state authority. Mudd also denied that a massive sell-off of the people’s property is imminent.

“While it’s true a mere two percent will be sold to pay for the development of a stronger state land management division, all other land is slated to stay in public hands indefinitely,” Mudd wrote. “Land sales are no more guaranteed under the federal government than under the state.”

Netherton and members of Friends of Nevada Wilderness are worried that prediction doesn’t pencil out.

“The alarming part of it is they’d have to sell off a lot of the land to be able to afford to manage the rest,” Netherton contended. “And you have to add in the rising fire budgets. … I don’t think they are planning for any major environmental review before they sell, and the bill has no language about resource protection.”

Meanwhile, experts like Medeiros see in the push to destabilize federal lands the shadow of California’s original environmental sin—the destruction of the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Mederios recently edited the largest academic e-journal ever compiled on restoring the Hetch Hetchy, published last year by Sierra College Press. One of its contributors was Robert Hanna, the great-great-grandson of famed nature writer and conservationist John Muir.

Hetch Hetchy was targeted for destruction in order to create a reservoir for supplying San Francisco with reliable water. Muir, who wrote that Hetch Hetchy was “one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain mansions,” battled politicians from the Bay Area to Washington, D.C., in an attempt to stop the project. The inability to save this sculpted cathedral within Yosemite National Park haunted Muir to the end.

“It was a devastating blow for him,” Hanna told SN&R. “Protecting that valley is what he dedicated the last seven years of his life to. He was fighting some of the most powerful people in the country. I know what it did to him. It’s the greatest assault ever on our national parks. It’s a wound and a historic wrong that’s never gone away.”

Hanna agrees with Medeiros that the issues of restoring Hetch Hetchy and protecting all other national parks should go beyond traditional red and blue talking points. “When it comes to this, I’m a firm believer that you just need to put politics aside and do what’s right,” Hanna said.